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(Credit: Far Out / Wikimedia / Natalia Y / Pier Luigi Valente)

Travel

Naples: saints, spirits, and superstition in Italy's most enigmatic city

@SamWKemp

Naples is a place like no other. Few cities can boast an archaeological museum containing Pompeiian pornography, a church where the blood of a saint is said to liquefy three times a year, and a subterranean cemetery said to be inhabited purely by spirits.

Nestled between Mount Vesuvius to the east and the wide Mediterranean to the west, this is one of Italy’s most ancient and superstitious hinterlands; a city where long-dead saints walk among the populace, and where you can’t step foot anywhere without brushing up against the occult, sacramental, or sublime. The city’s long and complex history, which saw it traded between warring factions and absorb religious influences from varying cultures, is perhaps part of the reason it has such a unique character, and why its residents have developed a set of unique religious and occult practices. In many ways, Naples has always been a city on the edge; straddling the line between fact and fiction to such an extent that walking its peeling streets – knitted together by countless clotheslines – can often feel like stepping into an invented landscape that exists purely in the imagination of some slumbering monk caught in the midst of a long and unbroken dream.

There are few places in which Naples‘ dreamlike character is more apparent than the Cattedrale di San Gennaro, an ornate cathedral built on the foundations of one of the city’s earliest Chrisitan basilicas, which itself was built upon an even older pagan site. This is the nature of Naples: there’s the city you see, and then there’s everything that lies beneath.

Three times a year, following a procession through the streets, huge crowds of devotees, curious onlookers, locals, and tourists gather outside the cathedral’s ivory-white facade to witness the much-anticipated ‘blood miracle’, an event that sees two small vies of dried blood return to their liquid state. The blood in question is that of San Gennaro, an early Christian who practised in his parish of Benevento at a time when Italy was still largely pagan. His faith made him the enemy of Emperor Diocletian and he was condemned to be torn to pieces by wild bears in the Flavian Amphitheater at Pozzuoli.

It’s not clear, however, if this was in fact how San Gennaro met his sticky end. As with all stories that stretch back into antiquity, it’s hard to separate truth from myth. Some say that Diocletian decided to carry out the execution in a less public area, choosing to behead San Gennaro at the Solfatara crater (a shallow volcano near Naples). Others maintain that the bear-mauling went ahead, but that the animals refused to touch Gennaro, such was his divinity. But perhaps the most popular story is that the priest was first tortured in the hope that he would relinquish his faith.

When it became apparent that San Gennaro was going to remain loyal to Christ, however, he was thrown into a red-hot furnace. But once again, his faith in God meant that he emerged unscathed. At this point, the executioners decided that the best thing to do would be to behead San Gennaro and be rid of him once and for all. The holy man’s headless body was gathered by an old man and wrapped in cloth, while a local woman collected some of his blood into the two vials that remain in Cattedrale di San Gennaro to this day. Whether or not you believe that the blood is actually San Gennaro’s or that it does, in fact, liquefy, doesn’t really matter, the belief continues to hold sway over the people of Naples regardless. It is said that if the blood doesn’t liquify, great tragedy will befall the city, just as it did in 1980, when, shortly after the blood of San Gennaro failed to dissolve, an earthquake devastated Naples.

Aerial view of Naples, Italy. (Credit: Pier Luigi Valente)

Such stories give us a possible insight into why the people of Naples have developed such a unique way of practising and approaching their faith. It’s important to remember that Naples is surrounded by a number of incredibly powerful natural forces. Somma-Vesuvius and Campi Flegrei are among the most famous active volcanoes in the world and form an unignorable part of the Neopolitan landscape. Their sporadic eruptions have had a huge impact not only on the development of the area itself (with the destruction of Pompeii being one obvious example) but also on the collective imagination of its people. Then there’s the sea, which in 1343 produced an enormous tsunami that entirely decimated the Amalfi coast. In a land where cataclysmic destruction could be unleashed without warning, it’s no wonder the people of Naples have developed a system of belief that places a sense of order on what is a fundamentally chaotic world. Interestingly, the last time San Gennaro’s blood failed to dissolve was in 2020, the year that Covid-19 struck.

The presence of San Genarro can also be felt beyond the boundaries of his namesake cathedral. Many believe that he still walks the streets of Naples and has the power to help those in need – and he’s not alone in this respect. The city is also home to Monaciello or the ‘Little Monk’, a beneficent spirit who takes the guise of a small boy dressed in a monk’s robe and who is believed to live in the subterranean labyrinth of passages that wind beneath the city streets. This 280-mile subterranean network was initially created by the Greeks in the fourth century BC when it formed the foundation of Neapolis, or ‘New City.’ When the Romans arrived, they used the pre-existing pathways to build aqueducts to carry water around the city. As the centuries rolled along and the city above absorbed the influence of the various cultures that conquered it, this vast network remained hidden deep below the surface. The maze of pathways contains everything from Catacombs and pagan burial chambers, to the remains of a Greco-Roman theatre, where Emperor Nero, a notorious thespian, was said to have his private dressing room.

It should be clear by now that Naples is a place where the past and present are in constant communion with one another. It’s no wonder, then, that the souls of the dead are regarded as having as much right citizenship as the living. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Cemetery of the Fontanelle. Located in Forcella, this burial ground was first created when the plague hit Spanish-occupied Naples in 1656. With the cemeteries beginning to overflow, the city’s gravediggers began offloading the bodies of the deceased into this improvised crypt. The same happened in the 19th century, when a wave of cholera hit the city, meaning that today the ossuary is home to the remains of around 4000 lost souls. In the catholic tradition, these half-buried souls exist in a state of purgatory between heaven and hell, so in 1972, in an effort to quiet this realm of restless spirits, Father Gaetano Barbati began organising the remains, stacking them into neat shelves with the help of volunteers, many of whom began developing strangely intimate relationships with the anonymous skulls they were cataloguing. Women began naming them, frequently returning to the crypt to ask the skulls for advice and placing wishes written on paper scrolls in ink-black holes where their eyes used to be. This practice came to be known as the ‘cult of the dead’ and continues to this very day.

Naples is surely one of the most fascinating city’s in all of Europe, full to the brim with esoteric sites, many of which are open to the public. But perhaps the most wonderful feature of this ancient and enigmatic metropolis is that no matter how far you dig, there’s always something lying just beyond your grasp. Thus is life in a city on the threshold between myth and certainty.

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